Emily Graham's often breathtaking play between the pipes has kept the Riverside-Brookfield High School girls soccer team in nearly every game so far this season.
The Bulldogs breathed a sigh of relief after their star goalkeeper was able to stay in the game after being injured with 16:46 left in the second half of Saturday's game at Marist.
Graham made a spectacular reflex save to tip a shot from Sara Eisha into and over the crossbar to keep the game scoreless, but stayed on the ground for a couple minutes afterward.
"When I landed it knocked the wind out of me," Graham said. "I thought I had popped my hip, but it ended up being OK."
The Bulldogs (3-4) have been OK thanks to Graham, a junior in her first season as the full-time starter. Graham made five saves in regulation and another two in the ensuing shootout against Marist, which edged RBHS 1-0 on penalty kicks.
"She was phenomenal," RBHS coach Ivek Halic said. "She's kept us in games many times. "She's doing wonderful. Her communication organizes the back line for us and she has been facilitating a lot for us."
Graham did her best in the shootout. She dove to her left and got a hand on Marist's first attempt, but the shot from Emma Brennan struck the inside of the left post and went in.
Marist (5-8) took a 2-0 lead as Anne Callaghan scored while RBHS failed on its first two attempts, with the first shot being saved by Marist goalie Cassandra Eraci and the second missing wide left.
But the Bulldogs rallied to tie it 2-2 as Graham stopped the next two Marist attempts, diving to her left to deny Megan Kirkwood and to her right to thwart Victoria Lara.
Meanwhile, senior Esther Annoreno and freshman Mazzy Marcucci made their penalties to pull RBHS even heading into the fifth round.
"On the first (shot) I was definitely disappointed that my touch wasn't enough to make the save," Graham said. "But I knew the most pressure is on the shooter, so all I had to do is try everything I could to get a touch on the ball. Luckily those (next) two shots I could get to."
But the Redhawks pulled out the win when Sheila O'Keefe knocked her penalty off the underside of the crossbar and in and the Bulldogs' final attempt rolled wide left.
Despite the loss, the Bulldogs played well against an opponent that advanced to the Class 2A supersectionals last season and was playing with a significant home field advantage. Marist's football stadium has a narrow field barely wider than the football field and that gives opponents fits.
The was the case for the Bulldogs, who played solid defense but rarely was able to connect to the forwards to sustain an attack, though the effort got better as the game went on.
"In the first half I think we were trying to find ourselves, trying to find the flow of the game," Graham said. "Toward the second half we started capitalizing on all the chances that we had to really move forward. We were just missing that last little bit to have the shot on net."
The defense, led by senior Ivy Marcucci, has played well with the exception of Thursday's 6-0 loss to Lincoln-Way West. The performance against Marist, the team's second shutout, was a nice recovery.
"We've been a rock with our senior center defender, Ivy, and our freshman defender, Sophia (DiForti)," Graham said. "Together they're just rock hard and we can still switch people out and have (good) communication. It's just a matter of connecting to the midfield and then we're golden."
Graham thinks it is only a matter of time before the Bulldogs start scoring more. They beat IC Catholic Prep 3-2 on Wednesday to improve to 2-0 in Metro Suburban Conference action, getting two goals from freshman Grace Larson and one from fellow rookie Taylor Kosiak.
"Now that we're getting used to each other and closer as a team, I think we're definitely going to start looking to capitalize on all of the technique that a lot of the freshmen came in with from their clubs," Graham said. "I definitely think that will help us going forward."